During discussions I’ve had regarding what it is to be a gentleman, the term ‘chivalry’ often arises. It seems to be a word with a mixed meaning, that is quite hard to pin down.

In more recent times, the term has been used in relation to courtship. A form of etiquette where the man takes the lead by, for example, holding the door open for the lady, paying the bill at a restaurant, and walking her to her door after a date. Whilst some exclaim ‘chivalry is dead!’ implying that men no longer know how to act in this manner, others have argued that the term, and the behaviours associated with it, are outdated. 

Having delved a little deeper, I found that the term has quite a long history, which is only partially linked to this behaviour.

The term ‘chivalry’ actually comes from the French ‘chevalier ’ and literally referred to a soldier, or warrior, on a horse…essentially, a knight.

During the middle ages, during the time of the Crusades, these warriors on horseback fought wars and attacked people, with very little in terms of the ethics governing their behaviour. Innocent people were often caught up in this, so, the Catholic Church, to try and limit the bloodshed, stepped in with, what was referred to as ‘The Peace and Truce of God’. It doesn’t seem to have been a written piece of legislation, but more of a movement to try and bring a degree of peace and regain control. The church stated those who were innocent and defenceless (particularly women and children) were not to be attacked, and tried to limit the number of days when knights could engage in battle.

These rules seemed to have a limiting affect, so the church, through writers and poets, developed something referred to as the ‘chivalric code’. This was a code of behaviour and an ideal– of morality and honour, linked to religion, that a knight, if he was a decent man, vowed to live by. It was a balance between a knight as a fighter, capable of violence, but also someone with an ethical core. Although not foramalised in any particular document, it was romanticised in stories about King Arthur. See for example ‘The Matter of Britain’ and the work of Chretien de Troyes, who wrote about Lancelot, and the holy grail. ‘The Song of Roland’ an epic poem written between 1040 and 1115, was based on the idea of chivalry and has listed among ideals, the following:

  • To fear God
  • To protect the weak and defenceless
  • To not give offence
  • To live by honour and for glory
  • To fight for the welfare of all
  • To obey those placed in authority
  • To guard the honour of fellow knights
  • To avoid unfairness, meanness and deceit
  • To always speak the truth
  • To persevere to the end in any enterprise begun
  • To respect the honour of women
  • Never to refuse a challenge from an equal
  • Never to turn the back upon a foe

In 1884, the French Historian Léon Gautier wrote La Chevalerie, which detailed the ‘Ten Commandments of Chivalry’ that Knights used to live by. These were:

  1. Thou shalt believe all that the Church teaches, and shalt observe all its directions.
  2. Thou shalt defend the Church.
  3. Thou shalt respect all weaknesses, and shalt constitute thyself the defender of them.
  4. Thou shalt love the country in the which thou wast born. 
  5. Thou shalt not recoil before thine enemy.
  6. Thou shalt make war against the Infidel without cessation, and without mercy.
  7. Thou shalt perform scrupulously thy feudal duties, if they be not contrary to the laws of God. 
  8. Thou shalt never lie, and shalt remain faithful to thy pledged word. 
  9. Thou shalt be generous, and give largesse to everyone.
  10. Thou shalt be everywhere and always the champion of the Right and the Good against Injustice and Evil.

It’s evident that, historically, chivalry went far beyond courtship and was more of an overarching ideal that a man lived by. Although the historical context has changed, the idea of the importance of having a strong sense of morality hasn’t. Deciding whether to open the door for a lady or pay for a meal might have to be something a man uses his judgement to navigate. However, values such as treating people with respect, being honest, brave, honourable and not offensive are still things that are highly valued in today’s society, Aren’t these, after all, part of what constitutes a real gentleman?

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